Tag Archives: Ronald Wintrobe

Wintrobe on the Soviet Union

Looking through some old notes, I found these passages from Ronald Wintrobe’s book The Political Economy of Dictatorship. I think he offers a very clear explanation of why the history of the Soviet Union unfolded as it did.

These considerations reveal the basic contradiction of Communist rule. The ideological basis of communism is solidarity. In order to promote that solidarity, markets and private ownership are suppressed. But in order to make the system work, it has to function as a bureaucracy that is under political control. But in any bureaucratic system, vertical control is paramount, and solidarity among the work force interrupts this control and lowers output and productivity. This result is especially likely when the whole society is organized as a single bureaucratic system, such as in the former Soviet Union and other Communist countries. The more the system operated as any bureaucracy must, the more the contradiction between its reality and its promises, as embedded in its ideology, became apparent (p. 214).


[T]he classic Soviet system, like any bureaucracy, did not run primarily on orders or commands but on exchange. The basic difference between a bureaucratic and a market system is that exchanges within bureaucracy are based not on laws but on trust or loyalty. Under communism, loyalty to the Party combined with the Party’s capacity to repress opposition became the source of its power. Consequently, when the Party was strong, either because it was ruthless in its use of repression or because it was believed to be capable of fulfilling its promises, the system was capable of good economic performance. The fundamental prediction of this model is therefore that in a Soviet-style system, there is a positive correlation between the power of the Party and measures of economic performance such as economic growth.

The basic problem with such a system as an economic system lie in the conditions for running any large bureaucracy efficiently; bureaucracies require vertical or hierarchical loyalty and not horizontal solidarity among co-workers, which can be used to escape Party control and therefore tend to lower productivity. In turn, this implies that there is a fundamental contradiction between the promises of communism — essentially, equality and solidarity — and efficiency. . . . over time, this contradiction became more and more apparent, and the system could only maintain itself, Stalin-style, through the use of the purge and other techniques for breaking up the horizontal networks and other nonsanctioned alliances which tended to grow up within it (p. 217).


The central problem of any bureaucratic system . . . is that over time, horizontal trust (as well as vertical trust) tends to accumulate and the accumulation of horizontal trust is ultimately very damaging to the efficiency of the system from the point of view of the leaders. We would predict that this problem was particularly acute in the Soviet system, with the intertwining of the Communist party and the state, as well as the consequent absence of an institutionalized takeover mechanism (such as general elections in politics or hostile takeovers in business) or any other mechanism which could “shake up” the loyalties which tend to accumulate within such a system. Consequently, the only weapon available for this purpose was the purge (p. 225).

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When the existence of the message is the message

From Ronald Wintrobe’s The Political Economy of Dictatorship, pp. 66-67:

An even more subtle point is that the party’s totalitarian ideology and propaganda may have succeeded in building its reputation, irrespective of whether the party line is believed or not, in the same way that, according to Klein and Leffler (1981), advertising promotes the reputation of and brand loyalty to a capitalist firm. In their model it is not the content of advertising but its volume (the accumulated stock) that provides information. Because better products are advertised more — or, more precisely, because producers have a greater incentive to accumulate a larger stock of advertising capital for higher quality products — advertising can signal quality: The buyer who knows nothing about two products except that one has been advertised more than the other can still correctly infer that it is indeed of higher quality. However, that repetitive quality is surely characteristic of totalitarian ideology and propaganda. That is, it is not the content of a message but the number of times it is repeated (the magnitude of the party’s investment in its promises) that contributes to reputation and promotes loyalty.

Of course, words are cheap — hence the typical resort to exaggeration, hyperbole, and repetition, in part, as a way of compensating for this truth. Why would Pravda devote two-thirds of its space for nine months to the publication of greetings to Stalin on the occasion of his seventieth birthday? As in the case of advertising, one cannot discover the meaning of ideology by looking solely at its content (“Happy Birthday, Stalin!”). One important aspect of the communication is not its content, but the frequency with which the message is repeated.

This reminds me of Václav Havel’s comments (quoted here) about a greengrocer who puts a “Workers of the world, unite!” sign in his window. According to Havel, the real message of the sign is “I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.” — or, more bluntly, “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient.”

Sometimes the real message isn’t the message itself but rather the fact that the message exists and is being communicated by such-and-such a person (group, newspaper, etc.) in such-and-such a manner.

This kind of thing isn’t limited to totalitarian ideology. As Wintrobe mentions, advertising is another obvious example — celebrity endorsements in particular. The real message of an ad is not, “A famous football player likes it, so it must be good”; it’s, “This company is so successful that they can pay famous football players to endorse their products.”

The same goes for most forms of protest and political demonstration. Someone once told me about some protesters he saw wearing “All Homos in HELL!” T-shirts at a gay pride parade and wondered what on earth they thought they were going to accomplish. Obviously, if someone thinks homosexuality is okay, those T-shirts aren’t going to convince him otherwise. But the real message here isn’t the content of the slogan being displayed; it’s the fact that the slogan is being displayed. Exactly the same thing is true of the gay pride parade itself; no one who doesn’t already agree with them is going to be convinced by their slogans, either. The real message both groups want to send is simply, “There are a lot more of us than you think, and we’re organized.”

Name-dropping is another example. The content of anecdotes about celebrities is mostly irrelevant; the important message is, “I know famous people! I call them by their first names!”

Even most ordinary small talk probably falls into this category. The point is not to convey or elicit any particular information about the weather or my day at work or whatever, but to send the message, “We’re friends. We share things with each other.”

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Mercedes Benzes, palaces, and Swiss bank accounts

I’m less than 100 pages into Ronald Wintrobe’s The Political Economy of Dictatorship, but already I keep thinking, “Wait, didn’t I just read that?” I know pointless repetition is a standard feature of academic writing (tell them what you’re going to say, say it, then tell them what you said), but I think you’re at least supposed to vary the wording a bit.

Here’s Professor Wintrobe on page 14, explaining his use of the word timocracy:

I borrow this term (perhaps inappropriately) from Plato (in The Republic [1974]). I use it to refer to a benevolent dictatorship, one in which the dictator genuinely cares for his or her people. It was not Plato’s ideal form of rule — it ranked second to rule by the Philosopher-King in his scheme. Still, the Greek root of timocracy is Thymos — to love.

And here he is on page 80, refreshing the reader’s memory:

I borrow the term “timocracy” from Plato (in The Republic), who designated by it what is obviously a benevolent dictatorship, although this type of regime ranked second to rule by the Philospher-King in Plato’s scheme. Still, the Greek root of the word “timocracy” is Thymos — to love.

And here he is, preparing his students for the exam question, “What three luxury goods do tinpot dictators crave?”:

Tinpots are regimes in which the ruling government does not disturb the traditional way of life of the people; instead it represses them only to the modest extent necessary to stay in office and collect the fruits of monopolizing political power (Mercedes Benzes, palaces, Swiss bank accounts, and so on) (p. 11).

A totalitarian regime uses these instruments of repression and loyalty to maximize power over the population, whereas a tinpot regime seeks no more power over its citizenry than is required to remain in power and collect the fruits (Mercedes-Benzes, palaces, Swiss bank accounts) of that office (p. 15).

The tinpot leader is essentially a rent-seeker, who seeks no more power over the population than the minimum needed to stay in office, using the rest of the resources of the state for his or her own purposes (palaces, Mercedes Benzes, Swiss bank accounts, and so on) (p. 79).

I wish Cambridge University Press had thought to hire an editor. Prof. Wintrobe’s central ideas are engaging, but these  déjà vu moments are starting to get really distracting. (When you stop reading to go back through the book looking for examples and then write a blog post about it, that’s generally a sign that you’ve been successfully distracted.)

Update (9/8): I’ve finished the book now and recommend it. The distracting repetitions stopped after the first 100 pages or so — or perhaps I just got sufficiently absorbed in the book that I didn’t notice them.


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